Turf Wars

In an excellent column on Sept. 2, the FT’s Janan Ganesh writes that “the president cannot win on public health. He might on public order.”

He continues: “What should trouble Mr Biden is not the recent narrowing of his poll lead …. Far more ominous is the change in the subject of national discourse.”

Rhetorically, this is absolutely true. Of all the hard-to-believe things we’ve seen in the past five years, the lack of a coherent, widely shared vision and message that is not on the president’s terms is one of the hardest to believe.

(Or perhaps not: “the resistance” doesn’t carry the same connotation as “the movement,” and professional politicians have been playing it safely vague for years. In any case, No, really, we’re against X grants that X is in fact the issue. To grant the frame is to grant most of the game.)

In conclusion, Ganesh writes:

An election is often understood as pitting against each other two answers to the same question — classically, “who will best run the economy?” Really, though, it is a contest to set the question. Mr Biden wants voters to ask, “who will fix the pandemic?” Mr Trump wants them to wonder who will secure their cities. That the more pressing question is even in doubt attests to the president’s momentum.

Both questions, though, betray an enormous and widespread lack of trust in government. All of these questions — including the traditional one about the economy — boil down to “who will keep us safe?” They just have different ways of keeping score: safety in retirement, safety in homes and streets, safety from sickness and death.

Different people keep score by different metrics for different reasons, but there’s a concerning lack of faith across the board. From a sheer competence perspective, the answer is obvious: the president’s tools are bluff, lies, and violence — and he’s not even especially good at those. I wouldn’t even hire the guy to do a real-estate development.

But competence stopped being the decisive metric a long time ago, and there’s a lot of credibility that needs to be rebuilt before it can be again.

All of that, in case it’s not clear by now, starts with fixing the pandemic.